American poison

The Littleton massacre is horrifying proof of our society's spiritual emptiness.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

Just like in Kosovo, where thousands will die to stop Milosevic's reign of terror, do you think the death of 15 high schoolers in Colorado will lessen the brutal and savage emotional torture and terror that the "jocks" of grades 6-12 rain upon thousands of non-jocks, the artistic and the sensitive, every day, in every city in America? Maybe they will think twice before they continue brutalizing and terrorizing the nerds. I doubt it. Like Milosevic, their brutish savagery is irreversible.

Stephen Skelley

La Jolla, Calif.

Dear Mr. Skelley,

Last week's horrifying massacre at Columbine High School in a suburb of Denver has brought widespread attention to clique-formation in high school -- a pitiless process that has remained amazingly consistent for the past 60 years. The arrogant jocks and debs still sublimely sail over the cowering nerds and wallflowers, who compensate by organizing their own pecking order, in minute gradations of status painfully obvious to everyone.

"We are hierarchical animals," I declared in my first book. Rousseauist liberals and armchair leftists (like Michel Foucault) think hierarchy is imposed on free-flowing human innocence by unjust external forces, like the government and the police. But hierarchy is self-generated on every occasion by any group, especially in a philosophical vacuum. As an atheist, I acknowledge that religion may be socially necessary as an ethical counterweight to natural human ferocity. The primitive marauding impulse can emerge very swiftly in the alienated young.

Your question about the terrorism suffered by artistic and sensitive boys is certainly close to my heart. I have theorized that most male homosexuality begins not at birth but in a failure of male bonding -- in the early rebuffing of sensitive boys by other males, first fathers and brothers and then the taunting in-groups of the schoolyard. This wound can make a homoerotic Michelangelo or a homicidal maniac, depending on circumstance and talent.

Guns are not the problem in America, where nature is still so near. These shocking incidents of school violence are ultimately rooted in the massive social breakdown of the Industrial Revolution, which disrupted the ancient patterns of clan and community. Our middle-class culture is affluent but spiritually empty. The attractive houses of the Columbine killers are mere shells, seething with the poisons of the isolated nuclear family and its Byzantine denials.

How ironic that our super-sophisticated warplanes were raining bombs on Belgrade even as American students were slaughtering each other -- a devastating revelation about the psychological maladies of the United States that Yugoslavia's amoral President Slobodan Milosevic was quick to point out and gloat over. When the American house is in such disorder, we look like fools and hypocrites in exporting our vision of democracy to far-flung corners of the world -- particularly when orchestrated violence is our tool.

Alas, the Columbine bloodbath already seems to be the rationale for increased surveillance of young people, who are now exhorted to snitch on each other to the authorities. The brooding apartness of Leonardo da Vinci, Lord Byron or Emily Bronte; the shrinking shyness of John Keats; the passive-aggressive reclusiveness of Emily Dickinson; the erratic moodiness of Edgar Allan Poe or Charles Baudelaire -- all will now be defined as antisocial, potentially dangerous behavior not to be tolerated by the omnipotent group, which will dispatch counselors of every stripe to coerce conformity. The totalitarian brave new world is upon us.

For me, the lesson of Columbine is that primary and secondary education, as it gradually expanded over the past century, has massive systemic problems. We are warehousing students from childhood to early adulthood, channeling them toward middle-class professional jobs that they may or may not want. Young, male, hormonally driven energy is trapped and stultified by school, with its sterile regimentation into cubical classrooms and cramped rows of seats.

I found naggingly unsettling the aggressively upbeat, we're-all-family public discourse of the Columbine faculty and staff, particularly when juxtaposed with the bland, sometimes indistinguishably WASPy faces of the students themselves. The conflict between individualism and the norm can be brutal: bourgeois "niceness" is its own imperialism. Fantasies of student revenge go way back to "Carrie" (1976), Brian De Palma's film version of Stephen King's novel, where a tormented teen unleashes her occult force to incinerate her high school. The rock revolution began with a pounding Bill Haley song blared over the credits of "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), with its juvenile delinquents on the rampage against teachers and authority.

Today's busy, busy, busy high school education seems to prepare young people for nothing. There are too many posh cars in the parking lot and too much stress on extracurricular activities. Just as I have argued for lowering the age of sexual consent to 14, so do I now propose that young people be allowed to leave school at 14 -- as they did during the immigrant era, when families needed every wage to survive. Unfortunately, in our service-sector economy, entry-level manual labor is no longer widely available.

At home, American teenagers are being simultaneously babied and neglected, while at school they have become, in effect, prisoners of the state. Primary school should be stripped down to the bare bones of grammar, art, history, math and science. We need to offer optional vocational and technical schools geared to concrete training in a craft or trade. Practical, skills-based knowledge gives students a sense of mastery, even if they don't stay in that profession. A wide range of careers might be pedagogically developed, such as horticulture and landscape design; house construction and outfitting; automotive and aviation mechanics; restaurant culinary arts; banking, accounting, investment and small business management.

The mental energy presently being recreationally diverted by teens to the Internet and to violent video games (one of the last arenas for masculine action, however imaginary) is clearly not being absorbed by school. We have a gigantic educational assembly line that coercively processes students and treats them with Ritalin or therapy if they can't sit still in the cage. The American high school as social scene clearly spawns internecine furies in sexually stunted young men -- who are emotionally divorced from their parents but too passive to run away, so that they turn their inchoate family hatreds on their peers. Like the brainy rich-kid criminals Leopold and Loeb (see the 1959 film "Compulsion"), the Columbine killers were looking for meaning and chose the immortality of infamy, the cold ninth circle of the damned.

In closing, let me declare again my utter opposition to NATO's airstrikes on Yugoslavia, an inept strategy that is being lavishly funded by American taxpayers instead of the Europeans who supposedly need protection from Balkan unrest. Serbian nationalism did not begin with Milosevic and will not end with him. Inflating this petty dictator into the new Hitler and then exaggerating NATO's benevolence will not solve the problem. We have stumbled into an ancient civil war, and we immediately used the horrors of aerial bombardment (terrorizing the civilian population and permanently traumatizing children) without attempting even the most rudimentary first steps of multinational embargo and blockade.

No matter what paper-thin agreement is reached among our cynical leaders to temporarily resolve this issue, we have poisoned a whole generation (notably in Russia and Greece) against us by demonstrating to the world not that we will intervene for justice but that we will interfere unjustly and arbitrarily whenever there is a pause in our all-absorbing sex and crime spectacles, that endless cycle of reruns that binds Hollywood to the Oval Office.

Dear Camille,

Could you please comment on the seemingly recent development of enshrining a death site with visits, vigils and bouquets? It usually occurs at a traffic accident site or crash scene of some sort. I don't seem to remember this custom 10 or 20 years ago. Would you agree it's a recent development with a New Age theme or some type of grief industry product? It's most annoying because these outpourings are usually delivered by people with no direct link to the "victims" but rather those who wish to demonstrate to the world how sensitive they are.


Dear Grieving,

You pose a suggestive connection between the New Age resurgence and those commemorative tokens at death sites. Perhaps the latter, sometimes kitschy trend is related to Christian religiosity about angels, who are enjoying a big comeback. And there is a recent craze for contacting the dear departed, which bestselling author James Van Praagh claims to do for the credulous even on the Larry King show. (Despite his wobbly accuracy, Van Praagh may be a genuine psychic who can read minds, but it's a cruel hoax to pretend that messages can be received from the beyond.)

Ritual roadside displays are vestigially pagan and propitiatory, marking the spot where a spirit lingers and may prey on the living. Untimely deaths were always thought to leave a wraithlike presence. Those bringing an offering to crash sites may be seeking some magical point of contact between time and eternity. It shows a thirst for transcendence in our banal, commercialized era.

The mammoth banks of flowers left at the gates of Kensington and Buckingham palaces after Diana died may have given this practice an international boost. Modern middle-class society is too detached from the physical facts of death. Traditional Italian culture, with its open coffins, corpse-kissing and cemetery visits, is far more realistic. Perhaps this revived (and rather Victorian) taste for memorializing death scenes will lead to the recognition that at death the individual is reabsorbed into nature and is not saved by any fairy tale of resurrection and the afterlife.

For all of recorded history, flowers have expressed the fragility and evanescence of youth and beauty, the mortality that is man's fate. When the tomb of King Tutankhamen was opened in 1922, the garland that had been placed around the pharaoh's neck by his wife still smelled fresh for a brief moment before the petals shriveled. Floral tributes are poetic and symbolic, a confession of human subordination to cosmic law.

Dear Camille,

Several months ago, you suggested on these pages that not one "major, potentially enduring work in any of the high arts" has been produced in the past 30 years. I'm wondering if you could elaborate on what factors have led to the moribund condition of contemporary high art, and whether there is any reason for believing that the new millennium will usher in another Renaissance in the arts.

Do you believe the deficiencies of teaching and scholarship in the humanities that you have tirelessly exposed are part of the explanation for contemporary art's predicament? The art critic Robert Hughes, who was interviewed in Salon some time ago, says in his book "Epic Visions" that "95 percent" of criticism in art magazines in the '90s has been "the merest puffery, garnished with opaque Derridian and Lacanian jargon." Is the absence of an erudite, well-written and honest criticism impeding the development of great art and artists?

And what responsibility, if any, does specialized art education at the university level bear for the current state of affairs? Even Hughes, who is by no means a biting critic of the contemporary art scene, suggests that teaching trends in art schools have had negative effects. In the 1991 edition of his book "The Shock of the New," he made the point that "essential skills" in the arts are not "self-sustaining" and can be "wrecked in a generation or two if they are not taught." He maintained that, as a result of the hostility of American art schools in the late-modernist period to "serious figurative painting," they had succeeded in destroying the technical skills necessary to sustain that genre of painting. How can we hope to find an "American Bernini," to use your expression, if, as Hughes then suggested, no American artist alive can "draw as well as Goya or Tiepolo?"

And what about the art establishment (curators, dealers, art magazines, etc.) itself, which, of course, has a vested economic interest in the continuation of the status quo in contemporary high art? Has the entrenched art establishment attained a power and influence not unlike that of the French Salon of the 19th century, which it is ruthlessly using to suppress any new directions in art? If so, perhaps there already is an "American Bernini" out there who is toiling in obscurity, unable to exhibit in the fashionable galleries or to get publicity in the trendy art magazines.

Stefan Herpel

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dear Mr. Herpel,

Thank you for your very impressive and challenging letter. It's a central thesis of my work that in the 20th century (which I call the Age of Hollywood) pagan popular culture overtook and vanquished the high arts. Thanks to advances in technology, pop became a universal language, as catholic in its reach as the medieval church. Once pop art embraced commercial iconography, the avant-garde was dead.

The high arts began their downward slide with the triumph after World War II of the chic nihilism of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," which set a style for dreary posturing that is still being aped in postmodernism. In its series "Millennium Reputations," London's Sunday Telegraph has been asking, "Which are the most overrated authors of the past 1,000 years?" My response, pillorying Beckett, appeared on Feb. 14. It's no coincidence that tunnel-vision, doom-and-gloom Michel Foucault had his early conversion experience when he saw "Waiting for Godot" in Paris.

No, I don't think teaching and scholarship, even in their decayed condition, have affected the actual practice of the high arts -- except in the area of draftsmanship, where conformist abstraction broke the continuity of naturalism and perspective that stretched back to the Renaissance. The great modernists like Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian were trained in the old manner, which gave force to their formal experiments. Even Jackson Pollock began as a figurative painter.

It's really art appreciation, rather than production, that has been harmed by the trendy pedants of academe. The humanities departments of the elite schools (from which very little important work has emerged in the last 20 years) are increasingly dead zones locked in by pretension and tenure. American universities have helped desensitize the audience to high art, leaving the major museums to pick up the slack with their monster traveling shows -- which have been wildly successful because of their delightfully outmoded premise of the artist-as-hero.

Some reawakening may be at hand: Aesthetics is coming to the fore again, a process in which I obviously played a pivotal role. When I mounted my challenge in my first book (whose methodology is Wildean aestheticism), the PC elite was routinely dismissing aesthetics as merely a branch of ideology, typified by the work of that maleducated designer Marxist, Terry Eagleton.

The academic feminists are now falling all over themselves claiming they were always proponents of beauty, but of course that's nonsense. They were completely silent for those long years when I was at open war on this issue -- as at the tumultuously hostile 1992 feminist conference at Princeton where, at the invitation of MTV producer Alisa Belletini, I accompanied Cindy Crawford and Allure's Linda Wells to defend the cause of fashion and beauty. A hilarious onstage photograph, reproduced in Ken Siman's 1995 book, "The Beauty Trip," shows me in apoplectic Amazonian overdrive with Belletini blanching by my side.

While painting has slowly lost its prominence as the prestige genre, I don't believe any "art establishment" can keep a talented, productive painter from eventually winning sponsorship by a gallery. Cronyism and favoritism do occur, but aspiring artists and writers must persist in their work and not be discouraged by rejections: The truly original is usually rebuffed but over time does make its way (sometimes, alas, posthumously).

In my call for an American Bernini, I was deliberately evoking not a painter but a sculptor and architect, a master of operatic Baroque theatricality. This coming artistic messiah may work in film or multimedia performance, a modern version of masque. I prophesy that the American Bernini will be a gay black male. He will have grown up with gospel music and will retain his Christian evangelical fervor even in his daringly pagan creations. He will have absorbed all the forms of world art and will reject the crabbed ironies of late modernism. His gift will be choreography, the universal body language of dance, which he will transform into brilliant visual images. Let our emperor's games begin!

Postscript: For the series on "Millennium Masterworks" appearing in London's Sunday Times, I contributed an article on Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" that appeared on Feb. 18. For the May/June issue of American Heritage, I contrasted Gloria Steinem and Faye Wattleton as, respectively, our most overrated and underrated feminists.

The April 19 issue of Publishers Weekly reports the May publication of "Women Together" (Running Press), which contains Mona Holmlund's detailed profiles and Cyndy Warwick's photos of lesbian couples, including Alison Maddex and me. The bronze moose we are dramatically pictured beneath belongs to a fountain at the foot of the grand front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- the ones Sylvester Stallone dashed up at dawn in "Rocky."

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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